Black History Month: Studs Terkel and others talk about race.

Published in 1992, Studs Terkel's book about race informs us still.

Published in 1992, Studs Terkel's book about race informs us still.

Recently deceased Chicago icon Studs Terkel was remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which he was probably the only straight white man in both the Black and Gay and Lesbian Writers Halls of Fame.

Studs’ prolific career included multiple memoirs, work in television, a law degree-he never practiced-years and years on radio, and, of course, his oral histories. His subjects included the basic stuff of life and death: work; war; the Great Depression; and hope.

As many of the tributes that issued forth after his death just on the cusp of Barack Obama’s historic election noted, Studs had an unmatchhed ability to listen, to ask probing questions and to make people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, their stories, their souls.  He listened with equal humility and openness to all.

Despite spending the first twelve years of his life in New York, a stretch of time that disqualified him from truly being a Chicagoan, Studs loved Chicago deeply, and it loved him back.  My brother Jon did a project for Smithsonian Magazine in which he took pictures of Studs’ favorites Chicago places.  In that article, Studs asserted that Chicago was the most American of cities.

Studs also makes that claim in Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About The American Obssession.  In the book’s introduction, he writes, “Asided from a few visits elsewhere, Chicago is the locus of this work.  Of all our cities, it is America’s metaphor.”

And race is one of its most thorny topics.

Terkel interviews people from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds-a Japanese-American couple and a number of Mexican-American folks’ words appear in Race-and the core is conversations with black and white people.

Many had been interviewed before.  One of the book’s many powerful features is that Studs had interviewed these people before-in some cases, as much as 25 years earlier.  Studs notes that Timuel Black, local griot of Chicago’s black community, who is still publishing oral histories of his own at age 90,  and he rode the same bus to the March on Washington, for instance.

The book is introduced with the words of Mamie Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955 during a trip to Money, Mississippi.  Mobley talks about the pain and hatred she felt toward her son’s murderers, but also about forgiveness.  From there, the work is divided into four sections, each of which has an overview and then accompanying interviews.

Chicagoans will recognize the presence of people like Pulitzer Prize winning-journalist Clarence Page and Salim Muwakkil, while aficionados of South Africa will enjoy the thoughts of Mark Mathabane and Rian Malan. Venerated civil rights activist C.T. Vivian, whose 1965 confrontation in Selma, Alabama of Sheriff Jim Clark was part of the Eyes on the Prize series, is in the book, too.

In addition to the appeal of learning from people one already knows, Race also has the benefit of hearing from people who are less publicly prominent.

Some of them have dramatic stories.

In one of the book’s most moving sections, Terkel includes the words of for former Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis and his former adversary, Ann Atwater, an African American activist in Durham, North Carolina.  Through a combination of hard times, straight talk and interpersonal contact, Ellis gives up his formerly racist views and Atwater comes to embrace the former Klansman.

Race is not a treacly story of transformation, though.

There are plenty of hard edges throughout the work.  Black people talk about being called racial epithets and their waning confidence that the country will ever give up its racism.  White people talk about their own and their family’s prejudices.  The subject of housing, educuation, jobs and community pulse throughout the book, showing that, close to 400 years after the first Africans arrived in what was not yet the United States, race continues to be a subject that bedevils the country without resolution.

The final section, Mixed, contains the words of two couples, each of which has one white and one black member, and their children.

At the end of the one of the interviews, journalist Hank de Zutter, who is white, looks at Amanda, his sleeping biracial daughter, and says, “Our daughter, who is now asleep, represents to me the embodiment of each culture … She carries a strength that neither of her parents has, because she’s the product of our daring to reach over, because we loved each other.

“She’s the future, if people realize the more we cross over, the stronger we are-as a country, as a planet.”

Stirring words, and, as always, ably elicited and recorded by the inimitable Terkel. 

Still, even as the country has elected the product of a similar union to lead our country, we would do well to look at all of the stories in Race to get the combination of bracing reality and persistent optimism that course through this and the rest of Terkel’s remarkable body of work.


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